The perspective of a native Japanese on kanji-learning

Hey all,
I though it would be interesting to share here the perspective of my girlfriend (a native japanese) on Kanji-learning. Learning Japanese with (and for) a japanese person is very different from learning in a class or with a textbook, and what she told me made me realize how different our approaches to kanji-learning were.

We foreigners and kanji-learners (including myslef) are obsessed with numbers : supposedly 1000 kanji to be able to read a manga, 2000 to be able to read the newspaper, 3000 to be fully litterate… And depending on were you loiter on the internet, those figures greatly vary (sometimes you read “3000 Kanji”, sometimes it’s 6000… I’ve even read on some quora thread that as much as 15 000 kanji are required. And I’ve read here that anything below 2400 kanji makes any native material lethal.)

And now the truth : my girlfriend confessed knowing how to read certainly less than 2000 kanji.
And no, she’s not stupid. Most of her friends confessed the same.
Of course, by the end of high school they are supposed to know at least 2000 kanjis, but in practice that’s really different. They forget a lot of them (let alone the writing skills).

We, kanji learners, tend to think that as long as we sometimes encounter unknown kanji in daily native material, we haven’t reached our goal yet. But although being japanese, she said that encountering unknown kanji happens to her on a daily basis. Japanese people often have an electronic kanji dictionnary on their smartphone for that.
Unlike us, japanes people (generaly speaking) don’t aim for a comprehensive understanding of all kanji that are used in daily life. They consider normal to sometimes not knowing how to read something and having to check.
This is very difficult to understand for us (well, at least for me), because from an european language speaker perspective, being able to read absolutely everyting is essential even on the early stages ; and we tend to project this perception on the japanese language.

And fun fact, my girlfriend told me that, when she was taking french classes in Tokyo (french being my native language), her teacher was french, and he knew way more kanji than any of the japaneses persons attending the class (roughly 3000 kanji). Student often had to ask him the meaning of the kanji he just wrote (I’m pretty sure he was often showing off though :smile:)

So here’s my 2 cents. You might disagree, or aldready know that, or having heard a different opinion from japanese persons. Curious to hear it though !


Possibly related: Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the “Harvard of China”. Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word “sneeze”?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China.

Now, he’s complaining about Chinese, not Japanese, but the set of common hanzi is not that much bigger than the set of common kanji. And to be more fair, he’s also complaining about writing, not reading, which has different issues.


My experience is that they certainly know more than 2000. But are they counting? They’re not. From 2000, it’s just a matter or learning the individual words than the kanji themselves. Plus, most of us can’t write kanji :slight_smile: The definition of what it means to know a kanji matters :slight_smile:


I think it depends greatly on the age. I would say that the younger generation probably knows less kanjis that the older ones, but I might be wrong. The fact that they often encounter unknown kanji is true nonetheless, no matter how old.
By “knowing a kanji”, I meant being able to read it.
As for writing kanji, I’ve been told that as a rule of thumbs, an average japanese person knows how to write about half the kanji he/she knows how to read. That’s still a lot more than us though :sweat_smile:
I remember my girlfriend telling me that thoughout highschool and uni, teachers often had to check how to write kanji that were actually pretty comons !

I was watching アイちゃん play DDLC a couple months ago; there’s definitely lots of places where she struggles and mis-reads text (pointed out by the text-over). Not sure how “real”-life that is, though :slight_smile:

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Well, she can’t possibly be AI, so I guess there is a real japanese person playing the game behind the scene ?
Which would make all her mis-reads very real :slightly_smiling_face:

Especially with the part about them knowing more than 2000 haha. And like you said, they KNOW them.

I do admit I can get obsessed with numbers though!

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Well, it’s hard to tell how much of キズナアイちゃん is played up for cutesy character traits vs. the actual ability of her 声優(せいゆう). But it doesn’t stand out as being extraordinarily bad…

(On the flip side, 藤間(ふじま)(さくら) being bad at 漢字(かんじ) is definitely a played-up character trait. Although at the same time it’s also due to her VA not actually knowing much kanji. 【22/7】QuickDraw!書いてみた!【藤間桜】 - YouTube 【藤間桜】漢字検定やってみた!【22/7】 - YouTube)

In real life I’ve definitely seen Japanese children skimming over words they don’t know while reading. I’m sure adults do it too, just less noticeable to me.

That acticle is so funny though :joy:

I do find this very interesting because I’ve had people express surprise when I tell them about WK. I’ve even heard, “you probably know more (kanji) than me” from other people in addition to the exclamation of surprise.

I agree that our journeys as learners of Japanese are different to native speakers. In fact, the learner’s experience is always more informed about the mechanics of the languages they are learning than the native speaker because during the process of learning, they are presented with an analyzed form of the language so that they can understand how to properly use that language in many cases.

One example of this in English is the technical terms that are attached to parts of speech, tense, aspect, etc. If a learner turned around and asked the average Joe Schmoe what the past participle of X verb, they would probably get a blank stare. Of course there will be people who would know, but it’s not a general population thing.

Another thing that has been trending in the past years with English instruction is the most frequent 3000-word lists that have come from corpus language analysis. When I first came across this, I was thinking if 3000 words would be enough for learners. Then I thought, how many words do I know? How many of those words do I actually use regularly? And the answer is, I don’t know. Yes, I’ve seen the vocabulary size analysis tests; they’re not absolute for a variety of reasons, but the point that I’m making is native Japanese speakers never have a need to quantify exactly how many kanji they know because there’s simply no practical use for them to bother. I would argue that more advanced learners probably don’t know either because keeping count after a certain point is a waste of time.

In any event, I don’t think Japanese people are unique in being okay about not knowing things when they read. Granted from an English-speaker’s perspective, not having any idea how to guess how to read a word is foreign, but people make assumptions about the pronunciation and meaning of words all the time. This is evident when someone uses a word that you don’t understand, and you ask them what it means. There’s a chance that that person may not be able to define the word properly because they don’t really know exactly what the word means; they only have a cobbled together image of what they believe a word means.

Nevertheless, I find this perspective interesting because while some of us are stressing about the minutiae of Japanese, native speakers are probably thinking that there are other things that are more important to focus on learning.


I can’t think of a single person who knows what they’re talking about who has said you need 6000 kanji to be literate. The only time you hear 6000 as a number is in reference to the highest level of the Kanji Kentei, which is famous for being so hard only several hundred people pass it every year. We know Japan has a super high literacy rate, so that wouldn’t make much sense.


That number reminds me of a list of 6000 words for the SAT, which those of you in the USA may have needed to learn some of. But it’s not like you’ll fail the test if you don’t know all of them.

Also, I’d just like to say that she might not have the same definition of “know” for a kanji.

A lot of learners believe they know a kanji if they know the English gloss and a few words that go with it.

But of course, a Japanese person knows many, many more words by default. So they won’t struggle to read certain things that a learner would struggle on, simply because they have so much more exposure.

You could know a dozen common words that use 解, including 解決, 解放, 解く, 解散… and still have not encountered a word that used the less common onyomi げ. This appears in words like 解毒 and 解熱, words that are very common.

So, a Japanese person might consider knowledge of 解 that doesn’t include げ to be notably lacking.

Just saying, “they’re being modest” is often a good explanation for some of these perplexing myths about the Japanese people’s supposedly poor kanji skills.


Indeed. My better half will tell me “oh, my kanji is not so good”, as she’s sitting there reading the newspaper!


I don’t think this is odd at all. Ask native English speakers to spell a bunch of random words and they may make a few mistakes. Spellcheck is built into everything these days and it’s not something that people, even the most educated, put a lot of thought into. However, if you were to ask native speakers to read something, of course, they’d probably know what it meant. So I think they may just not be counting correctly when they say they can’t read that many.

Japanese/Chinese people don’t have time to hand write a bunch of kanji these days. Everything’s digital.

my wife is a nurse, so she can read and write a lot of kanji, but few people these days write much, and need to look up kanji on their phone. i’ve seen that happen quite often. not being able to read and understand is rare. not knowing the proper reading happens frequently.

one thing of note is that japanese people see kanji as “spelling”, rather than as “kanji”.

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